When was the last time you saw a romantic comedy about a couple of 70somethings who fall head-over-heels in love? Maybe never?  If so, playwright Kathleen Clark remedies this omission in Southern Comforts, now getting its West Coast premiere in an entertaining, well-acted production at Theatre 40.

Crusty widower Gus Klingman (Tim Hodgin) is a retired stone mason living in a nearly empty suburban New Jersey house without really living in it.  Then Gus meets former librarian Amanda Cross (Jacqueline Scott), a feisty Tennessee widow up north visiting her daughter, and things will never again be the same for curmudgeonly Gus.

Amanda first shows up on Gus’s doorstep with a packet of donation envelopes she’s volunteered to deliver to parishioners of her daughter’s church. Since the spirited Southern Belle has arrived in the middle of a summer storm, Gus semi-grudgingly invites her to stick around till the deluge stops. “You must save a lot on furniture polish,” wisecracks his plain-speaking visitor upon scanning the spacious but near furniture-free living room.

From their first exchange, it’s clear that sparks of one kind or another are likely to ignite when South meets North. Amanda longs to travel; Gus doesn’t “see the need,” though he did move next door after his wedding. As for his forty-five year marriage (which ended five years ago with his wife’s death), truly happy memories are few and far between.  Helen was unhappy in her marriage, but don’t ask Gus to tell you why; he never thought to ask.  As for Gus’s childless adult son, well, he only comes around about twice a year to check up on the old man. “I can get along just fine,” brags the self-proclaimed self-sufficient widower.  “I don’t need him anyway.”

As for female companionship, Gus can also do just fine without all those women who stopped by after his wife’s death just to interrupt his TV viewing. Amanda, on the other hand, would be bored silly if she did like Gus and just spent her time alone in front of a TV set watching whatever ball game is on the tube. Amanda can’t stand being bored, and though she doesn’t mind a bit of juicy gossip, the idea of spending all day with a bunch of old biddies chattering on about this rumor or that (that is, when they’re not complaining about getting old), well, Amanda can think of far better ways to pass the time of day.


Though Gus and Amanda are clearly not a match made in heaven, Amanda is still around the following Sunday. Not that this means that the two septuagenarians are getting along any better than before.  Gus snaps at Amanda when she happens to mention his son, though later when she suggests that the time may have come for her to head back home to Tennessee, Gus likes that even less.

The two soon begin sharing confidences.  Gus reveals that his late wife moved out of their bedroom and into their son’s room the day he left home. Amanda discloses that her husband was killed in a car accident, though perhaps the “accident” was his way of getting rid of his horrible war-related nightmares.  Ultimately, Amanda tells Gus, “I guess we both missed out, didn’t we?”  

Perhaps, then, there is some hope for these two to fill in the gaps in their lives in a way that their respective spouses never could. “You’re like a good cup of coffee,” Gus tells Amanda. “You keep me awake.” Maybe this is why even after August comes and goes, Amanda is still up north. 

Playwright Clark clearly believes in the attraction of opposites, for Gus and Amanda couldn’t be more dissimilar.  He doesn’t understand the world Amanda lives in, one where people actually want other people to be happy. She believes people are basically good, and he doesn’t.  Perhaps worst of all, Amanda simply can’t fathom how Gus can actually be—God forbid—a Repbulican!  

Clark understands too that even “over-seventies” can still get the urge to merge from time to time, though truth be told, Gus isn’t all that comfortable when talk turns to sex.  Amanda’s “I don’t like a lot of lights on” provokes an embarrassed “Oh Geez!” from Gus. Still, when Amanda asks Gus point blank, “Are you still able to?”, he responds with an enthusiastic “Hell yes!”, and like that proverbial “horse and carriage,” love does indeed go together with marriage. Before you can sing the first notes of “Here comes the bride,” Amanda has become Mrs. Gus Klingman—and then the real fireworks start.

Skillfully directed by Paul Millet, Southern Comforts features some very good work by a pair of actors whose credits go back a long, long ways. Scott particularly has a résumé few in Hollywood can boast, with tons of TV guest shots dating back to the mid-1950s and the days of live television. Her raspy growl of a voice does make one wonder who Gus is talking about when he remarks, “it’s soft, your voice … and calming,” and I would have liked a few more shades to Scott’s performance, but she has many strong moments, particularly in showing Amanda’s raw need for someone to give meaning to her golden years. There is definite chemistry between Scott and Hodgin, the latter quite amusing as a man set deep in his ways and not about to change.  Scott and Hodgin’s fight scenes crackle, as when Gus learns that Amanda plans to ship twelve cases of books up North (“That’ll fill up the whole house for crying out loud!”), or when Amanda finds out that Gus still plans to be buried next to his first wife. Both actors prove themselves up to the physical demands of a very funny scene which has Gus attempting to install storm windows and finding himself trapped on the roof with only Amanda (and a curtain rod) to help him squeeze back into the house.

Southern Comforts unfolds in a series of six scenes over six months, the two actors changing outfits between each scene. These costume changes could and should be speeded up considerably, whether with backstage dressers or more Velcro or a combination of both, as the audience spends considerable time waiting for the next scene to begin, though fortunately treated to a well-chosen selection of songs, from a swinging 1960s version of “More (Theme From Mondo Cane)” to the 1980s sounds of INXS’s “Need You Tonight” to a jazzy “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” courtesy of sound designer Bill Froggatt, whose design also includes some very realistic and appropriately loud thunder for the play’s first scene. Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack’s living room set is appropriately barren till he and a pair of stage hands bring in Amanda’s furniture, though disappointingly only one of those twelve expected bookcases. Dan Reed’s lighting is very good, particularly a nice flickering TV effect, and Christine Cover Ferro’s costumes are well chosen for Amanda and Gus, though as previously stated, not apparently designed for quick changes.

Clark’s Secrets Of A Soccer Mom, reviewed here last September, showed off her talents for combining comedy with often touching dramatic moments. She does the same here with an improbable pair of romantic sweethearts, but a couple in whose happiness the audience becomes quickly invested. Gus and Amanda may not have the decades-long “happily ever after” that most romcom lovers are guaranteed, but that doesn’t make Southern Comforts’ happy ending any less satisfying to audience members of a romantic bent. Theatre 40’s subscriber base of retirees will likely enjoy seeing themselves reflected onstage, but audiences of any age will find considerable pleasure in Southern Comforts.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
December 1, 2009
                                                                     Photos: Ed Krieger

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